The last person known to have lived as a slave in the Seychelles, Japhet Alice (nee Africaine) died a free Seychelles citizen in 1956, after a long and adventurous life. Although so little is known about her, including her exact age when she passed away, her life was certainly one that reflected the history of the Seychelles. To understand the life of Japhet Alice, it is necessary to know about the history of slavery on these islands.
For the first two centuries after Vasco da Gama set foot on the Seychelles in 1502, most of the European contact with the archipelago consisted of passing sailing ships on their way to and from India and the Spice Islands in what is now Indonesia. For many years, pirates used some of the islands for their bases, while raiding merchant shipping, but did not stay as settlers and farmers. It was not until 1756 that French Captain Nicolas Morphey claimed the islands for France, naming the archipelago after the Minister of Finance for King Louis XV, Jean Moreau de Séchelles. Even then, it waited until 1770 that the first group of settlers came to the Seychelles to establish plantations. Settling on St. Anne, these French colonists brought with them 15 slaves to perform some of the labor.
Very little is known about these original slaves – who they were, where they came from and certainly not their names. Records kept by the French colonists show that, as their plantations grew, so did the number of slaves, both through natural increase and by bringing in new unfortunate slaves. A census in 1778 states that there were 221 slaves, by 1803 there were 1,820. After the Treaty of Paris in 1814 gave control of the Seychelles over to the British, more detail about the state of slavery on the islands began to be recorded. The British census of 1827 showed that there were 6,638 slaves on the islands, although the European population was only listed as 685! This census also gives additional information about slavery in the Seychelles. It states that about 45% of them had been brought to the islands from Madagascar, while 40% were east Africans, mainly from Mozambique and Central Africa. The rest of the people considered to be slaves may have been Malabars, people from India and Malaya who had been brought as indentured servants, and therefore not considered free.
As a British colony, slavery was still legal in the Seychelles, but there was a movement in Great Britain to abolish the practice. Great Britain had passed an act in 1807 to abolish the slave trade – although not slavery itself – and used its Royal Navy to enforce this law throughout the world, taking upon itself the right to stop slave ships on the high seas and freeing the slaves found on them. As a further step, the Anti-Slavery Society had been formed in Great Britain in 1823, with the purpose of ending slavery throughout the British Empire and, indeed, the world. This organization included many powerful Englishmen, including William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was a member of the House of Commons in the British Parliament where he worked to have laws passed to abolish slavery. Finally, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was passed, which would begin to free slaves throughout the British Empire beginning on August 1, 1834. On that day, slave children below the age of 6 were considered entirely free, while slaves older than that were considered to be “apprentices” to their former masters. Then, they were to be declared entirely free on August 1, 1838.
Knowing that full emancipation was coming anyway, the British colonies of Mauritius and Seychelles (they were administered as part of the Indian Ocean territories) declared emancipation of approximately 20,000 slaves on February 1, 1835. While freedom was certainly sweet for these people, their conditions did not immediately improve. Plantation owners convinced the British Governor to impose a poll tax on the newly freed men and women, a tax which these poor ex-slaves could only pay in labor, usually working 3 days a week without pay for their former masters. This moite system continued for many years, keeping even the descendants of slaves tied to this unfair practice.
But how does this relate to the life of Japhet Alice? Her story begins west of Seychelles, on the African mainland. Even though Great Britain had declared slavery at an end in its own colonies, the practice still continued in many other nations. Africans were still being taken into slavery and transported to ports on the coasts, where they were sold and transported to slave-holding countries. One such port was Zanzibar, a sultanate on the island of that name off the east coast of Tanzania (now Tanzania). From there, Arab traders and some Europeans transported slaves in dhows and other types of ships to the Middle East and to other areas of the world. If these ships were stopped and captured by the Royal Navy, and the slaves freed. Since it was impossible for the captains of the British ships to return these freed people back to their home villages, they were often taken to the closest British colony where they could, at least, live as free people.
Seychelles was, because of its location along trade routes in the Indian Ocean, often the nearest British colony, so many rescued former slaves were brought there in order that they could live free. This went on for many, many years; Zanzibar did not prohibit the slave trade until 1876 and, even after that year, people who were illegally kept as slaves were sold, bought and smuggled from Zanzibar nearly to the end of the 1800s. The Royal Navy continued to attempt to suppress this illegal trade in human misery, capturing slave ships and freeing their human cargo whenever they were found.
Although we do not know the details, and never shall now that Japhet Alice has passed on, it is believed that she was once one of these unfortunate Africans taken and made a slave in the late 19th century and transported to Zanzibar. Where she was born and what happened to her family is lost to history, but although Japhet Alice may have once been a slave, she lived out her life and breathed her last as a free woman in the beautiful land of Seychelles.